It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of a public letter that a group of 55 Iranian political prisoners wrote to US President Obama in early August 2013, pleading with him to lift the economic sanctions and engage in detente with Iran.
They alerted Obama that this is the last chance he might have to address the pending issues between the two countries.“We, the undersigned current and former political prisoners in Iran,” the letter declares in its opening paragraph, “are writing this letter to bring to your attention the devastating effects of crippling economic sanctions and the intensified efforts to diplomatically isolate Iran in the international community”.
Encouraged by the recent presidential election, in which millions of Iranians elected a moderate cleric with hopeful signs of changing their dire circumstances, these political prisoners had come together to appeal directly to the US president to end the massive humanitarian crisis that the US/Israel-led sanctions have inflicted on Iranians at large, causing unconscionable hardships for ordinary people.
This is a critical development in Iranian political culture: The most actively engaged political prisoners, who oppose the ruling regime and are suffering in its dungeons, have joined with the government imprisoning them to call for an end to sanctions. The writing of this letter clearly shows that the sanctions have effectively brought together the ruling regime and its most serious domestic opposition (the expatriates whom American administrations habitually listen to are almost entirely useless and irrelevant).
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The prisoners’ deep concerns were not surprising. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, just days before the presidential election, had come out and said that even those who opposed the “Islamic Republic regime” should participate in the presidential election “for the sake of their homeland”.
This was an absolutely remarkable admission for the aging leader to have made, admitting for the first time that a sizeable segment of the nation do not fall within the purview of the ruling Islamist ideology. Yet they were not dismissed as “anti-revolutionaries”, but implicitly honoured as patriotic Iranians who still cared for their homeland beyond the limited horizons of the ruling regime.
For the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic to appeal to Iranian nationalism was no mere political ploy to generate legitimacy for his regime. He has shown in the past that he is perfectly capable of wanton savagery to crush any opposition. This critical concession represents a turning point in the ideological metamorphosis of the lslamist regime, under the pressure of a vastly different citizenry than the one that enabled its ascendency more than 30 years ago.
Symbolic suspension of sovereignty
As a political manouevre, the prisoners’ letter is a shrewd, timely, and punctiliously provocative move that puts a number of crucial actors on notice.
First and foremost, the letter outmanoeuvres the Iranian regime by going over its head and sending a message directly to the US president, thus effectively suspending its claim to legitimacy and sovereignty. The letter symbolically liberates the signatories from their chains, tells their wardens they are not prisoners anymore and restores their agency from beneath the Islamic Republic. It is a restorative act, wresting authority from the ruling regime while still in its custody.
Second, it outmanoeuvres the treacherous expatriate opposition, who are pushing for more crippling sanctions and even war against their own people. The letter is a dismantling of these discredited cliques, ranging from the ludicrous monarchists gathered around Reza Pahlavi, to a mismatched band of riffraff on the payrolls of various American neocon operations, to the military cult of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, who – aided by even more corrupt US politicians – are pushing for Obama to fight for them so that their morally bankrupt leaders can go back and rule Iran.
Third, the letter outmanoeuvres the self-appointed PR machine operated by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, who seem to be on a mission to discount the validity of a people’s democratic aspirations, and who over the last four years have consistently denied, denigrated, and dismissed the Green Movement in Iran. For here are 55 of Iran’s most valiant political prisoners – most of whom were arrested, incarcerated, tortured, and denied basic civil liberties in the aftermath of the contested 2009 presidential election – writing directly to the US president appealing for dialogue. After this letter, they might consider changing the course of their careerism and see where else their overnight “expertise” might be employable.
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Fourth, this letter outmanoeuvres President Obama by showing the emptiness of his ludicrous Persian New Year messages and his Nobel Peace Prize, given that he boasts at AIPAC meetings how severely crippling the sanctions have been, and continues to insist that “all the options are on the table”, showing off his military prowess in case Israeli demands he invade Iran.
Fifth, it outmanoeuvres the Zionist propaganda machine that has been selling the ludicrous idea to fools in Washington that these crippling sanctions will bring about regime change in Iran. Israeli scholars of Iranian history need to inform their officials of the depth of Iranian nationalism, which at the drop of a hat can bring all Iranians together to recite the Shahnameh and defend their homeland tooth and nail. They should stop wasting their (and US taxpayers’) money on expatriate Iranians who are taking them for a ride, telling them what they want to hear and not what they ought to know.
Sixth, the letter will also outmanoeuvre Saudi Arabia’s machinations, which in conjunction with its regional allies are wasting their petrodollars on the discredited expatriate opposition, daydreaming they will go back to Iran and topple the regime. The Saudis are the single most pestiferous anti-revolutionary force in the region, and these useless acts can only delay the course of history that the Arab Spring has announced.
Seventh, and perhaps most significantly, this letter creates a new solidarity between the progressive forces inside and outside Iran by crafting a new political culture of defiance and dissidence beyond the existing, divisive ideologies – using the narrative ruse of writing to Obama. In effect, they are not really writing this letter to Obama. They are just writing to each other by way of indirection and insinuation. This narrative strategy might in fact result in the most consequential post-revolutionary reconciliation among various progressive forces.
Issues persist, but the air is clearer
The combined message of Khamenei and political prisoners, combined with the outcome of the recent presidential election, show that the Iranian people are in charge of their own destiny, defying both the retrograde forces among the ruling regime and its treacherous expatriate opposition alike. The dignity of their perseverance has forced their aging sultan to admit that there are forces in Iranian history he has not yet dreamt of in his Velayat-Faqih, the central doctrine of his absolutist power.
None of this is to suggest that all is now candle, rose, and nightingale in good ol’ Persia. This is not the end of differences, but it is the beginning of a dialectic. There are severe limitations to what President Rouhani can do: He is no panacea. The deep divisions among Iranians are still there: The reformists and the left are at each other’s throats, the religious and the secular keep quarreling in medieval terms. The nasty neo-liberalism that defines the global economy is at the very roots of the Islamic Republic. The incurably liberal Reformists are the only group the ruling regime allows to camouflage its otherwise deeply rooted totalitarian streaks, with the spectacle of democracy every four years staged to delay or alleviate an inevitable demise or metamorphosis.
Meanwhile, the Iranian people do the best they can under the circumstances, neither fooled by the ruling regime nor beholden to the malleable and wishy-washy Reformists – producing a Khatami one day, a Mousavi another, and now a Rouhani, out of their deepest and most noble democratic desires.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Iran, The Green Movement and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox (2010).